· Paul Wattson’s idea for the Week for Christian Unity ·
It was on a cold Winter’s day 16 January 1863 that Lewis Thomas was born to the the Episcopalian Reverend Joseph Wattson and Mary Electa Wattson in Millington, Maryland in the United States. The future Founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement saw the light of day and felt the warmth of love. But on that day, and many more to come, his country suffered strife, division, death, darkness, and war. It was the time of America’s Civil War, with its horrible slaughter and wholesale destruction. A few days before his birth, on 1 January, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation , making the abolition of slavery an official war goal. It proclaimed the freedom of 3.1 million of the nation's four million slaves. Growing up in this atmosphere, Lewis came to appreciate the importance of such issues as the dignity of the human person and freedom for all people in the light of the values taught in the Gospel. These would become part of the agenda of the man who will become known as Fr Paul of Graymoor, Prophet of Unity.
Perhaps he is best known by the mark he left on the religious history of the 20th century as being the initiator of what is now known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity celebrated between 18 and 25 January each year in the Northern hemisphere and usually between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday in the Southern hemisphere. He was likewise one of the key figures in the founding of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association which aids Christians of the Oriental Churches. In addition, his prophetic vision that created the Union-that-nothing- be-lost (UNBL) continues to aid the poor, missionaries, and laborers for Christian unity well beyond its foundations in the beginning of last century. The countless homeless men who pass though the doors of the shelter at St. Christopher’s Inn can attest to the charitable heart burning in this humble man. They find refuge and solace in the home of the Friars. Many of those coming there today suffer from addictions of various kinds.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of this unique Franciscan, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement have published a popular life of this exceptional man. Fire in the Night is the legacy of Fr Paul of Graymoor, who together with Lurana Mary White founded the Society of the Atonement. God raised up two souls with a passion for Church unity in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. The lives of Fr Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White and the birth of the Society of the Atonement are testaments to an undying passion. This passion stems from the heartbeat of Jesus himself, and his prayer at his Last Supper, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…” (Jn 17:21). The passion of Christ for unity is a heart-felt energy that flows through us, not from us. It is the energy that carries us on our life’s journey. From Love we come—to Love we go!
Light a candle in a dark room and watch as the light instantly overcomes the darkness. Observe the power and grace of that single solitary flame dancing with life! Now light another candle and feel the hope it brings. Now light several candles from the first two and experience the added warmth, illumination, and comfort they give.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness with this sign: the light of Christ passed from the Paschal candle, from one person to another through the congregation. Both Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana of Graymoor were living flames of God’s desire for unity in Christ’s Body, the Church as in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Restless in the dark, we grow together in the Light.”
Fr Paul knew well the darkness that hangs over many a prophetic soul. Self-doubt and spiritual anguish plagued him, and not only in the early years of his vocation. Even as God confirmed his path, he suffered blows such as alienation from friends and colleagues and charges of disloyalty and mental imbalance. Assaults from all sides included downright lies and came even from a few within the Society of the Atonement.
Sometimes our fire is extinguished. Spirit-knit friends re-kindle that flame, as Francis and Clare and Fr Paul and Mother Lurana did for each other. There are torch bearers in this world and then there are living lights and leaders of movements. Fr Paul lifted the torch for the unity of Christians, and the healing of divisions that had rent the garment of Christ. He is a living light of passion for Christian unity.
In Fire in the Night , people will discover the person of Paul Wattson, his outstanding Christian Virtues and heroic efforts to overcome the alienation of sin that has divided Christians for centuries. He is a builder of bridges, an ambassador of reconciliation, a true Franciscan. His love of the poor, of God’s good creation but, most of all, of the supreme self gift of God’s only Son in the atonement on the cross animated Paul Wattson’s entire life. In this Fr Paul of Graymoor is an authentic witness of God’s continuing concern that all of creation find its true purpose for which it was made, to find shalom , that abiding peace where Creator and creature are at one in the heart of God.
We look for patterns in the plan of God. Hence we may ask is it a coincidence that Fr Paul was born just two days before what would eventually be designated as the week of prayer for Christian unity? This year’s theme taken from the prophet Micah “What does God require of us?” is a challenging theme. It deals with a deep probing question that each one needs to answer. The prophet speaks the words that each of us already knows expresses the desire of God, namely “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”. Each is called to be a prophet in the sense that we need to witness to the desire of God. Nothing short of a deep spirituality marked by time spent in communion with our God will bring about that peace, that justice, that unity which is a mirror of the soul’s communion with God. Only then can we overcome that which divides us because our prayer has brought us to see with God’s eyes and not our own.
Fr Paul of Graymoor burned with the prophetic passion of his journey with God. At the heart of that journey was conversion. Conversion involves allowing the events of his life to change his perspective. Fr Paul understood his need for an on-going change of heart and for an on-going change of perspective that allowed him to see from God’s point of view. After 150 years he still remains a shining example of where firm faith and courage come from. In the closing words of the homily at his funeral in 1940, his loyal longtime friend, Fr Ignatius Smith, OP, dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America noted, “It can be explained, this supernatural courage, only when we understand that here is a man who took Jesus seriously, and lived with Him literally, and was eternally conscious of the Divine Providence of the Omnipotent Creator and Preserver of this universe...”.
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